Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The pithy diary of a saint

John Henry Newman, born 130 years ago today, was a key figure in the Oxford movement, and is a recently canonised saint in the Catholic Church. His collected letters and diaries have been published in 33 volumes, but his letters - voluminous and literary - are the stars of these tomes, not his diary entries which are rarely longer than a word or two.

Newman was born in London in 1801, the eldest of six children. He was educated at Great Ealing School where he converted to evangelical Christianity, and Trinity College, Oxford. After graduating, he took on private pupils while reading for a fellowship at Oriel College - being elected a fellow in 1822. He was ordained a priest in 1825, and became curate at St Clement’s Church, Oxford. The following year, he returned to tutor at Oriel, the same year as Richard Hurrell Froude. It was under the influence of Robert Froude (Richard’s father) and the clergyman John Keble that Newman became a committed High Churchman. In 1833, he was one of the main figures in the new Oxford movement, writing tracts and publishing books, aimed at promoting High Church elements within the Church of England.

As Newman’s influence in Oxford and within the Church of England was peaking, he encountered significant opposition. When his Tract 90 was denounced, doubts set in, and he lost confidence. In particular he retracted previously published criticisms of Catholicism. In 1843, he resigned his living at St Mary’s and retired to a village, Littlemore, outside Oxford. There, with a number of followers, he lived in a quasi monastic way. In autumn 1845, he was received into the Catholic Church, a move which led to breaks with friends and family alike. The following year, he went to Rome where he was ordained priest and awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity by Pope Pius IX. In late 1847, he returned to England as an Oratorian (member of a select society of Catholic priests). He founded the Oratory at Birmingham in 1848. After living in various places, he eventually settled at Edgbaston, where spacious premises were built for the community, and where he would live a relatively secluded life for most of the next forty years.

Although celibate, Newman had intense life-long relationships, especially with Froude and Ambrose St John. Some biographers consider these may have been homosexual, at least emotionally if not physically. In 1854, at the request of Irish Catholic bishops, Newman went to Dublin as rector of the newly established Catholic University of Ireland, now University College, Dublin. There, he founded the Literary and Historical Society. After four years, he retired, and published a volume of lectures entitled The Idea of a University, explaining his philosophy of education. In the mid-1860s, Newman published an autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (freely available online at Internet Archive). A number of projects he was asked to lead or support seemed to come to nothing, and at one stage he was suspected of doctrinal unorthodoxy. However, in 1879, he was created a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in recognition of his services to the cause of the Catholic Church in England. He died on 11 August 1890. 

Nearly 130 years later, in October 2019, Newman was canonised by Pope Francis. Further information on Newman is available from The Oratories of England, The London Oratory, The Oxford Oratory, the BBC, Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Newman Reader.

Newman kept a diary more or less continuously from 1824 to 1879, however most entries are pithy, consisting of a few words, and lack punctuation. Over half a century, they have been published by Oxford University Press in 33 volumes as The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman. Personally, I have only examined a handful of volumes, but in these it is Newman’s letters that take up the bulk of the space, 95% or more. Some volumes can be previewed at Googlebooks, and some borrowed for an hour from Internet Archive. The following extracts are taken Volume XXVI - Aftermaths (January 1872 to December 1873) with notes and an introduction by Charles Stephen Dessain and Thomas Gornall (1974). 

21 February 1872 
‘Ambrose sang Mass - went over with him to Rednall and planted Mulberry and Nuts.’

18 June 1872
‘bad thunderstorm and profuse rain’

19 June 1872
‘dark - rain - thunder’

20 January 1873
‘Snow    went to Derby    heavy snow’

21 January 1873
‘thawing    returned to Oratory’

22 January 1873
‘much rain    Pusey ill’

24 January 1873
‘Hurrell Froude came’

16 February 1873
‘a bad cold at this time’

10 September 1873 
‘returned to the Oratory’

11 September 1873
‘Aubrey de Vere came’

12 September 1873
‘de Vere went’

2 October 1873 
‘went with Ambrose and preached at the opening of the Olton Seminary’

See also Descended from a bishop.

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